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In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

Today is a most special day of the Hajj, the day of Arafat. It is said that, on this plain, Adam and Eve were first reunited after their expulsion from the garden. Standing on the plain of Arafat is the most important part of the Hajj. In fact, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was reported to have said that, “Hajj is the day of Arafat.”

On the plain of Arafat, pilgrims spend the entire day in prayer, meditation, and reflection. Then, from about late afternoon until the sun sets, pilgrims begin to beseech their Lord for forgiveness for all of their sins. It is a dress rehearsal for Judgment Day, when everyone will stand, alone, before their Creator and be called to account for their actions.

I remember this day as if it was yesterday. We stayed in a big, carpeted, and air conditioned place. It was sort of like a large warehouse, but it was actually quite comfortable. Food, drink, and tea was served throughout the day. From the morning through the afternoon, we spent the day praying, reading Scripture, and quietly reflecting. After the late afternoon prayer, however, the real emotion of Arafat came at me in full force.

A number of the pilgrims in our group got together and made a communal prayer to God for His grace and forgiveness. I preferred to be alone, all alone, with my God to talk with and beseech Him for His mercy. I could not stop the tears from falling. I thought about all the things I had done wrong; all the sins I committed; all the times I fell short of the Lord’s standards; and all I could do was weep.

The Plain of Arafat

I thought about how Beautiful the Lord had been to me, and how ugly I had been in return to Him. I thought about how Merciful He had been to me, and how ungrateful I had been through my sins. I thought about how Perfect He is, and how flawed and broken I was. And all I could was weep.

I bowed my head to the ground and begged my Creator to look past everything that I done wrong and take me in as I am: weak and flawed. I bowed my head to the ground and laid all my faults and shortcoming before the Foot of the Lord. I bowed my head to the ground and made no excuses for what I had done in the past. And I appealed to the Lord for His undying Mercy and Grace, for that was all I could do, and that was all I had left to do.

And as the sun set, elation set in because, as the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) told us, all of our sins would be forgiven. We would be born anew. In fact, the first sin one can commit after the day of Arafat would be to think that God did not forgive you for your sins. The power and emotion of that moment would stay with me forever. I felt totally rejuvenated, and my bond with God became even stronger.

When I first went to Mecca, I was quickly overwhelmed by the Awesome Power of God, fully symbolized by the Ka’aba. Yet, that feeling went away quickly, and He became a near and dear Friend and Companion. This strengthened to the greatest degree after Arafat, and I have leaned on that Friend and Companion ever so much  from that day forward.

I will never forget that day on the plain of Arafat: it was a day of powerful emotion and a day of powerful grace.

The tent city of Mina

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

Today marks the official first day of the Hajj. We had come back to Mecca from Medina (more about that later) and did another minor Hajj or umrah upon re-entering the city. Then, we headed to the tent city of Mina, where the pilgrims stay during the Hajj. It was a little strange, having to sleep in a large tent with at least 25-50 other people. But, on the Hajj, you learn to get accustomed to situation with which you are not familiar. So, I picked a small space on the carpeted floor, took my pillow, and slept.

There was major anticipation in my heart over what was to happen next.

To be continued…

 

 

This is the Ka’bah, the central shrine in Mecca.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

The decision was almost totally spontaneous: my wife and I simply looked at each other and said, “Let’s go to the Hajj this year.” That set in motion a series of events that culminated in the most powerful spiritual experience of my entire life. That was back in the fall of 2002; yet, the memories and feelings of the Hajj which took place in Februray 2003 are as fresh as if they had happened yesterday.

In the coming days and weeks, Muslim pilgrims – like me  all those years ago – are descending upon the Arabian peninsula to perform the annual Hajj, or pilgrimmage to the holy city of Mecca. It is a trip that every able bodied Muslim man and woman must perform once in his or her lifetime. It is a living re-enactment of the ancient drama of Abraham, Hagar, and their son Ishmael. I will recount my Hajj experience here on my blog, so you can get a taste of the awesome experience that millions of Muslims have each and every year in Mecca.

Back in the Fall of 2002, there were a lot of things that needed to fall into place for my wife and I to go: we had to get babysitters for our two children; I had to get coverage at work; we had to find a travel agency that will take us. Thankfully, everything went smoothly, and before we knew it, we were on our way to Frankfurt, Germany on the first leg of our trip to the holy city of Mecca. After we arrived in Germany, we prepared to go to Mecca, and we got dressed in the ihram, or the ceremonial dress of the pilgrim.

The ihram consists of two white and unstitched cloths with which we wrap ourselves (it is a little different for women). It the ultimate equalizer, as prince and pauper look totally alike. In this garb, we are stripped of our worldly rank and status and return to God and His House as servants and worshippers – nothing more, nothing less. In the plane, we started chanting the greeting that pilgrims since the time of Abraham have chanted as they approached the Holy House: “Here we are, O Lord! He we are, Here we are! There is no rival unto You!”

Our path to Mecca first took us to Jedda, where the all the pilgrims must first stop and get processed by the Hajj authorities. And there we learned the first lesson of the Hajj: patience. Everything in Jedda moved very, very slowly. We waited at least 12 hours for the buses that will take us Mecca. But, the wait was well worth it because, at the end of the wait, was the thing we all longed to see for our entire lives: the Ka’bah, the shrine – built by Abaraham himself – dedicated to the One God.

As the bus drove closer to the Ka’bah, I was struck by how “normal” Mecca seemed. It was like any other ancient city of the Middle East: dusty, cramped, and full of narrow streets and alleyways. It looked a lot like Cairo, to which I had been a few times before. But then, almost coming out of nowhere, I saw it: the Grand Mosque which held the Ka’bah. The mosque was the most beautiful I had ever seen. It seemed to glow, even though it was in the middle of the day. From where the bus was, I couldn’t see the shrine itself, and that only enhanced my anticipation and eagerness to go and see it.

My wife and I left our baggage at the hotel at which we were staying and almost ran to the Grand Mosque. And then, I saw it: the Ka’bah. The black cube stood there in front of my eyes, and I was struck with tremendous awe. Tears were streaming down my face as I walked closer to the shrine, praying to God for His grace and mercy the entire time.

It was so very beautiful, and it literally took my breath away. This was the thing to which I turned five times a day for decades; this was the thing which the Prophet Abraham and his son Ishmael built; this was the thing around which the Prophet Muhammad had walked all those years ago. And it was right before me, being my companion as I walked around the shrine – in the tradition of the Prophet Abraham – seven times in a counterclockwise direction. This is called the tawaf, and it is the special way in which this shrine is greeted.

After I finished my circumambulation, I walked seven times between the two hillocks of Safa and Marwa – just like Hagar did centuries ago – and finished my ‘Umra, or lesser pilgrimmage. It is not a requirement of the Hajj, but since we were already there – several days before the actual Hajj was to begin – we figured, “Why not?” Once we finished these rituals, I went back to the hotel and proceeded to shave my head as a symbol of my servanthood to God. It hurt…and bled, a lot.

Yet, despite this, the whole experience was awesome, and we spent several days thereafter in Mecca as “tourists”: eating, shopping, and praying in the holiest spot on earth for Muslims. Yet, for all the greatness of those days, the things we were about to experience were even greater.

To be continued…

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

The angry and, sadly, often violent protests that have erupted in several Muslim countries in response to the anti-Muslim video that surfaced on the Internet has left me terribly saddened. First, it always bothers me when I read or hear about or see the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) being maligned and attacked in a very vicious manner.

Yet, I get the same disquiet when any Prophet of God – Moses, Jesus, Abraham, Noah, or others – is maligned or attacked. Yes, people are free to say and believe what they want, but that doesn’t mean I have to either like it or be silent about it. Yet, I am very upset at the fact that seemingly devout Muslims reacted violently to the film: attacking the Embassy in Egypt and Yemen; attacking KFC and Hardees restaurants in other countries. I mean, come on, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would never condone such violence, even if it is out of love for him.

Throughout his ministry, the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was attacked, maligned, and mocked. Yet, he never reacted violently or told his followers to do so. His response was kindness and compassion, and it was this kindness and compassion that eventually won over his most bitter enemies. He was only following the commands of God in the Quran:

But [since] good and evil cannot be equal, repel thou [evil] with something that is better and lo! he between whom and thyself was enmity [may then become] as though he had [always] been close [unto thee], a true friend! (41:34)

That is the example we should follow as Muslims. Yet, sadly – and for a variety of social, economic, and political reasons, as well as a sheer lack of faith – some Muslims frequently do not follow the Prophet’s example.

Having said that, however, it is to be noted that the Muslim protesters that garner the headlines are a very small minority. For example, in Cairo – out of more than 9 million people – a few hundred protesters at best attacked the US Embassy. The TV cameras may have made it seem that the entire city came out – like during the Revolution – but it did not. The few do not, and must not, reflect upon the whole, just as the filmmaker who produced the anti-Islam film does not represent America or her people.

It has since surfaced that the filmmaker, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is an Egyptian Coptic Christian who apparently deceived the actors into thinking they were filming a “desert action” film, and not an anti-Islam diatribe. And this made me reflect, and lament, over the frequent tension and enmity between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Why?

We are all children of Abraham, the blessed Patriarch from whom all of the Hebrew Prophets and our Prophet Muhammad is descended. We all worship the same God, the God of Abraham. No, Christians and Jews may not accept the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as a Prophet. But, that is fine. They are free to choose whatever faith they want. We Muslims accept, love, honor, and revere Jesus, Moses, and all the Prophets of God, peace be upon them all.

All we ask is that we respect our Prophets and not attack and malign them: all of our Prophets, not just the Prophet Muhammad. And, truly, this should not be so difficult, given the extensive commonalities between Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Yet, all too often, we children of Abraham forget these commonalities and focus on the differences, seeking conflict because of them. Why?

The Quran says this:

Unto every one of you have We appointed a [different] law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto, you. Compete, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ. (4:48)

It is part of God’s plan that there will be different faiths and different spiritual paths. What does God want us to do? He wants us to compete: not in the number of converts; not in the number of conflicts; not in the number of times we attack or malign each other’s holy Prophets (which Muslims would never do). No, He wants us to compete in doing good for the sake of all.

Why can’t we heed the call of God?

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

It has been sought out for time immemorial: the key to long life. Legends have spoken about a Fountain of Youth, but such a fountain has been elusive. More recently, however, there has been talk about calorie restriction as the key to living longer. Studies have been conducted, and there was some promise:

The idea that a low-calorie diet would extend life originated in the 1930s with a study of laboratory rats. But it was not until the 1980s that the theory took off. Scientists reported that in species as diverse as yeast, flies, worms and mice, eating less meant living longer. And, in mice at least, a low-calorie diet also meant less cancer. It was not known whether the same thing would hold true in humans, and no one expected such a study would ever be done. It would take decades to get an answer, to say nothing of the expense and difficulty of getting people to be randomly assigned to starve themselves or not.

Researchers concluded the best way to test the hypothesis would be through the monkey studies at the University of Wisconsin and the National Institute on Aging, although the animals would have to be followed for decades.

Now, the major study that was started in 1987 has been completed, and the results are in: calorie restriction did not prolong life. The results of the study were published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature:

For 25 years, the rhesus monkeys were kept semi-starved, lean and hungry. The males’ weights were so low they were the equivalent of a 6-foot-tall man who tipped the scales at just 120 to 133 pounds. The hope was that if the monkeys lived longer, healthier lives by eating a lot less, then maybe people, their evolutionary cousins, would, too. Some scientists, anticipating such benefits, began severely restricting their own diets.

The results of this major, long-awaited study, which began in 1987, are finally in. But it did not bring the vindication calorie restriction enthusiasts had anticipated. It turns out the skinny monkeys did not live any longer than those kept at more normal weights. Some lab test results improved, but only in monkeys put on the diet when they were old. The causes of death — cancer, heart disease — were the same in both the underfed and the normally fed monkeys.

Lab test results showed lower levels of cholesterol and blood sugar in the male monkeys that started eating 30 percent fewer calories in old age, but not in the females. Males and females that were put on the diet when they were old had lower levels of triglycerides, which are linked to heart disease risk. Monkeys put on the diet when they were young or middle-aged did not get the same benefits, though they had less cancer. But the bottom line was that the monkeys that ate less did not live any longer than those that ate normally.

When I first heard of the idea that practically starving oneself may be the key to living a long life, I said to myself: Why? Why would I want to deprive myself of one of the greatest things God has given us (especially after Ramadan) – food and drink – in order to live longer on this earth? Especially on this earth?

Now, I don’t believe in living one’s life with a death wish. I have lived through some very dark days, but I never considered suicide. God forbid. But, that doesn’t mean that I would go to extremes  – like starving myself – to live longer. Life and death are in God’s hands, not ours.

Of course, I know – as a doctor – that if someone lives a very unhealthy lifestyle (smoking, eating an unhealty diet, drinking to excess, etc.), it is likely that this person would live a shorter life than the average lifespan of an American. Yet, for that person, his or her lifespan is his or her lifespan.

If it is in God’s plan for that person to live 80 years, despite being totally unhealthy, then that person will live to be 80 years old. Conversely, even if someone lives the most healthy life possible, if it is God’s will that he will die at age 24, like my cousin, then that is the life that he will live.

I often joke by saying this: “I would rather die six months earlier than I would normally have and eat my ________.” And I would fill in that blank with a variety of things: Taco Bell (yes, Taco Bell), chocolate cake, cheesecake, frozen custard, etc. That point is: we should live a life of moderation.

Live as healthy as possible, because it will make it more likely that we will avoid the scourge of disease. Yet, it is ok to enjoy an indulgence (by this I mean desserts or potato chips…) every once in a while, to make life fun and lively. But, I don’t think we should go to extremes (like starving ourselves) in order to live longer. That’s because I believe there is a life and a world after this one.

And in that life, I will be with my Beloved forever. Starving myself to stay here longer is just not worth it.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

“We made it.”

Those were the first words of my Friday sermon yesterday. At long last – very, very long last – the month of Ramadan ends today. And although I did enjoy the prayers and the special time I had with the Book of God, the fasting did take its toll. And thus, I make this prayer as the hours slip away towards the end of the month:

Precious, Beautiful, Beloved Lord my God!
Precious, Beautiful Beloved One in Whose Hands rests my soul!
Precious, Beautiful Beloved One Without Whose Grace I would be dead and gone!
Lord, I have tried my best to be faithful to Your call to fast the days of Ramadan.

I know that I should have been so full of glee for the opportunity to fast.
But, as only You would know best, I did have some dread out of my own weakness.
And so, Precious Beloved Lord, please forgive me for that weakness in my soul.

Precious Beloved! Forgive me for all the times that I grimaced in discomfort for having to fast.
Forgive me for all the times that I did not fast with a complete and total smile on my face.
Forgive me for all the times that I yearned for the month of fasting to finish and finish quickly.

Precious Beloved Lord! Please accept my fast, even though it is defiled by my human weakness.
Please accept my reading of your Holy Word so that I pass the time remembering You in Your Majestic Glory.
Please accept the times I prayed the night vigil for Your sake, trying to get closer to Your Alighted Face.
Please accept my acts of kindness, forgiveness, and forbearance during this month and for the rest of the year.

Precious Beloved Lord! Please take me into Your Presence when my time has come.
Please accept me as I am: weak and pathetic, unworthy of all the bounty which You have bestowed upon me.
Lord, please, do not stop the blessings you have sent my way. Nay, Beloved, increase those blessings day by day.
Please extend the glorious blessings that this month of Ramadan has throughout the rest of my days
And, please, Lord save me from Your terrible punishment both here on earth and in the hereafter.

In Your Most Holy Name I do ask these things, Beloved Lord. Amen.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Infinitely Merciful 

In the wake of this horrible tragedy in Wisconsin (and also the burning of a mosque to the ground in Missouri), all I can do is offer my heartfelt condolences to the victims’ families and the entire Sikh community in Wisconsin. My heart ached in pain when I saw what this barbarian did to innocent people who peacefully gathered to do nothing more than glorify our Lord in worship.

And I also offer this prayer:

Lord God, Beloved Lord of the Heavens and the Earth

Hear my prayer, Beloved King of Kings

Send down Your mercy and grace upon the Sikhs in Wisconsin 

Shower them with Your soothing comfort to ease their pain

Protect them and every community of faith from the attacks of the wicked 

Help bring all communities of faith together in brother- and sisterhood

Stand with us as we stand with them in this moment of pain and tragedy.

In Your Most Holy Name I ask this of You, Beloved. Amen.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful

As the month of Ramadan progresses, I am trying to read the Qur’an as part of the spiritual regimen that this month brings. And as I re-engage with the Qur’an, I came across this gem:

True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west – but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance – however much he himself may cherish it – upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God.

There is a little background on this: ever since the ministry of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) began, the Muslims had been praying in the direction of Jerusalem. Soon after the Prophet emigrated to Medina, however, there was an order from God (in the Qur’an) to change the direction of prayer to Mecca. This caused “scandal” among some non-Muslim factions in Medina at the time. This verse above was God’s response.

When I read this verse, it makes me think that we should avoid an excessive emphasis on ritual at the expense of larger moral and ethical conduct. In his explanation of this verse, Muhammad Asad wrote:

Thus, the Qur’an stresses the principle that mere compliance with outward forms does not fulfill the requirements of piety.

In my mind, these “forms” include things to wear, the type of socks someone should wear, the length of a beard, etc. And so many people place so much emphasis on outward forms and neglect the importance of inward purity and moral conduct. Now, don’t get me wrong: ritual practice is very important. Just because the Qur’an says that “true piety does not consist with turning your faces towards the east or west,” it does not mean that ritual prayer is no longer important. On the contrary, the Qur’an stresses multiple times on the importance of establishing the ritual prayer and other outward forms of worship, such as fasting.

In addition, there is nothing wrong if someone, seeking to emulate the Prophet out of love, wears a long beard or wears garb like the Prophet used to wear. But, it makes no sense for someone to wear a long beard, like the Prophet did, and then lie and cheat his customers when he works in his shop. It makes no sense for someone to wear leather socks, like the Prophet did, and then abuse his wife and children in a horrific manner.

What is outrageous to me is the pictures of the barbarian terrorists that are caught: they wear long beards because the Prophet did. But, does it ever occur to them that the Prophet forbade the killing and maiming of innocent people? Does it ever occur to them that the Prophet would abhor the murder they commit in his name? Does it ever occur to them that killing and murder is the antithesis of the true piety that they try to convey by their wearing a long beard? Truly outrageous.

The Qur’an is full of these gems: these short passages with tremendously profound meaning. This is one of the nice things about Ramadan (even if it is in the LONG, LONG, LONG days of summer). I get a change to re-acquaint myself with the Qur’an. And I am never disappointed.

In the Name of the God, the Compassionate, the Infinitely Merciful

There is an ongoing legislative hysteria in dozens of states about the threat of “Sharia law,” and how Muslims are somehow seeking to supplant the Constitution with “Sharia law.” I try not to laugh because the premise is so absurd. Still, it is a fear on the part of some people, and this fear is capitalized upon by some who want to marginalize the Muslim community from American civic and political life.

And, of course, these people will point to terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Nigerian Boko Haram as “proof” that this is what Sharia is all about: violence, murder, barbarity, and terror. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this doesn’t matter to (1) those terrorists who truly believe that Islam calls for murder and violence, and (2) those who want to smear Islam with the actions of criminals.

Further, whenever terrorist groups like Boko Haram cause violence and mayhem, it is all over the news and the radar of the Islamophobes. Yet, what is not widely known is the interfaith effort to combat Muslim-Christian violence in Nigeria. In May, a high-level interreligious delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC) and Royal Aal Al-Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought (RABIIT) visited Nigeria to assess the violence there between Christians and Muslims. On July 12, they issued their report. The delegation highlighted several causes underlying the violence, and it seeks constructive ways both Christians and Muslims can work together to fight this violence.

Here is two interpretations of Sharia side by side: one seeks destruction, and the other seeks peace and reconciliation. Some claim the former is the “true Sharia.” I strongly beg to differ. True Sharia seeks peace, preserves life, and seeks reconciliation. True Sharia works to bridge the interfaith gap and seek common ground.

Boko Haram is not Sharia. Bombs and suicide vests are not Sharia. These things are murder and evil, the very antithesis of Sharia. Part of the problem, however, is that no one likes to report when Christians and Muslims work together for peace. They only like to report when they fight one another.

In this holy month of Ramadan, I pray more people get to know the true Sharia: Christians and Muslims working together for peace.

In the Name of God, the Compassionate and Infinitely Merciful 

There is so much that fellow Americans do not know about Islam. In fact, a recent poll stated that almost 60% of Americans say they do not even know a Muslim. Yet, there is so much more to Islam than its tenets and the Muslims who follow the faith to varying degrees, although getting to know that is quite important. There is a rich history of culture and art, despite the contention and perception that Islam is hostile to art and culture.

Enter the award-winning nonprofit Unity Productions Foundation. It is set to release a new film, Islamic Art: Mirror of the Invisible Worldthat will bring the immense legacy of art and architecture that Islam has left the world to glorious life. It will broadcast nationally on PBS on July 6th at 9:oo PM EST as part of the new PBS Arts Summer Festival, a multi-part weekly series that will take viewers across the country and around the world.

The film is narrated by actor Susan Sarandon, and it will take viewers across fourteen centuries of history and nine countries to showcase Islamic art and architecture. From the Taj Mahal to Arabic calligraphy, Islamic Art will show in stunning beauty the rich and diverse nature of Islam and its cultures, and it will showcase the past and continued contribution of Islamic culture to society and world civilization.

I believe all viewers, Muslim and non-Muslims alike, will be pleasantly surprised with what our film uncovers,” states Alex Kronemer, Executive Producer of the film. “As a window into an often misunderstood culture, this film has the ability to be a real catalyst for understanding and perhaps offer a new perspective on Islam’s values, culture and lasting legacy,” says Kronemer. Michael Wolfe, the film’s other Executive Producer, says: “Never before have viewers had the opportunity to explore such richness of Islamic art and history with commentary from some of the world’s most renowned experts who have the ability to explain just why these works are so important.” 

Both Wolfe and Kronemer are personal friends, and I am in awe at their amazing work in the field of television and film. This film is the ninth by UPF, which was founded in 1999 to create peace through media. UPF produces documentary films for both television and online broadcast as well as theatrical release, and it implements long-term educational campaigns aimed at increasing understanding between people of different faiths and cultures, especially between Muslims and other faiths. More information is at www.upf.tv.

Don’t miss this incredible film about Islamic art and culture. You will not be disappointed. For more information about the film, visit: www.islamicart.tv